Government propaganda appears to be formulated to malign refugees by tossing anyone who dares to seek asylum in the “illegal immigrant” dumpster. Is the depiction of refugees as illegal immigrants justifiable? Let’s start with the facts:
On 30 July 2015, Immigration refused entry to six foreigners who landed at the Hong Kong International Airport. Three of them were Indians arriving from Delhi, while the others were a mother and two children flying from Ethiopia. After being denied entry, all six applied for asylum by raising non-refoulement claims through the Unified Screening Mechanism (USM), thus blocking removal proceedings.
A government Press Release followed the next day, reported by several media outlets including:
- Six passengers refused permission to land lodge claims for non-refoulement
- (TVB) 六旅客被拒入境聲請免遣返疑事先策劃
The report appears to reveal what is an alarming problem. Attention should be drawn to these statements in particular: “while waiting for removal, the legal representative (of the Indians) lodged claims”, “for the three African passengers, a non-governmental organisation had already informed ImmD”, “the African female admitted that their travel documents did not bear their genuine identities”, “all of them lodged claims soon after they had been refused permission to land”, “ImmD will conduct further investigation on whether or not there is any person who intentionally arranged … to lodge claims”.
The media presented the above information as arguably indicative of abuse. Yet, Vision First claims the above actions and information are essential to due and fair process. It is a constitutional right of individuals to seek protection against refoulement. It is not a loophole in legislation.
Further, let’s consider:
- Hong Kong welcomed more than 5 million visitors a month in 2014. As one of the busiest tourist and transit hubs in the world, it is unremarkable that on average 20 asylum seekers sought government protection at control points every month last year. Considering international migration/refugee challenges, one might ask: Why so few?
- The legal representative for the Indians should not be singled out for assisting claimants “waiting for removal”, as if the asylum process were thus abused. The lawyer was simply doing his job advising clients who requested assistance in the process of seeking asylum. The claimants were smart to hire a lawyer who should be praised for resisting and (temporarily) succeeding against the state machinery that would otherwise have probably deported his clients.
- The press release fails to report that the African husband is a mandated UNHCR refugee attempting to reunite with a family he originally separated from when he fled abroad. Immigration knew this from interviews supported by documents, yet chose to depict the “African female” as a deceitful abuser in possession of fake passports. In fact it is legally acceptable for refugees to flee to safety with any documents that will achieve that objective.
- The press release fails to report that Immigration officers refused entry to the African mother and children (boy 6, girl 5) when they sought asylum earlier this year at the SkyPier at the Hong Kong International Airport. On that occasion, the mother submitted that her husband was a UNHCR refugee in Hong Kong and they would face danger if returned to Africa. It is disconcerting that her protection pleas were ignored and the family was removed without further investigation.
- The press release avoids stating that the NGO in question was the Refugee Union, perhaps to deflect attention from the valuable assistance the society offers refugees in need of advice and communication with government departments. It is reported that the husband of the African family sought the assistance of the Refugee Union that competently liaised with Immigration and secured the release of the mother and children in two days.
- No consideration is given to the basic legal principle that any asylum claim ought to be treated as genuine until the entire screening process is concluded. The press release instead seems to presume that the 3 Indians and 3 Africans were troublesome abusers of an otherwise fair asylum process. What are persecuted foreigners expected to do if raising claims at the airport is considered reprehensible?
On 23 July 2015, Vision First was contacted by a member who alleges that Immigration deported him to Nepal with questionable tactics, prior to the commencement or completion of USM screening.
The conversation below, edited for clarity, raises a host of troubling questions:
- Why was the refugee jailed for illegal entry after 2 years on bail?
- Why does the refugee complain that Immigration officers “forced me” to sign documents?
- Why was the refugee threatened with imprisonment if he didn’t sign?
- Why didn’t Immigration translate and provide copies of such documents?
- Why wasn’t the USM screening completed, if commenced at all?
- If a USM Notice of Decision was issued, why wasn’t a copy given to the refugee?
- Why didn’t an interpreter translate the Notice to the refugee?
- Why was the refugee denied the right to appeal?
- How did the assigned duty lawyer defend the refugee?
- Did the duty lawyer ensure a high standard of fairness?
Rashid, 45, fits immigration profiling that perpetuates the department and city-wide culture of rejection: he is Pakistani and was convicted in 2001 for possessing a fake ID card; he was deported, but returned illegally in 2007 by speedboat; he overstayed 7 years before VF arranged his surrender to Immigration; he admits to working illegally to make ends meet and send money to family members who depend on him.
The question is: Is Rashid abusing the asylum process?
“If we can see the moon tonight then Ramadan is finished, otherwise we shall wait one more day,” explained Rashid as he welcomed us into a peaceful village compound for the Eid festivity that marks Ramadan’s end. Rashid belongs to the Pakistani Ahmadiyya minority. The community president explained the religious persecution, “Ahmadis were formed in 1889 in India from a Sunni branch. In 1903 the center was moved to Punjab and we are now based in 206 countries, with our Chief Imam in exile in London. In 1974 the Pakistani government amended the constitution and declared Ahmadis non-Muslim sparking discrimination, persecution and murders, often instigated by firebrand mullahs who preach that killing Ahmadi is a pious act rewarded by virgins in Heaven!”
When the family fled persecution and violence, Rashid came to Hong Kong, while his wife and children fled to Thailand. They were eventually recognized as refugees by the UNHCR in Bangkok and resettled to the Unites States. The heartbroken father explains that other relatives also gained refugee status in the UK and Canada. He explains that “Before there were 250 Ahmadiyya refugees in Hong Kong, including children. Now we are only 70 as many moved to other countries with the help of UNHCR, or through private sponsorship. There is no future for our people in Hong Kong.” The Unified Screening Mechanism (USM) seems to have worsened their prospects.
“We need to empower our community,” Rashid requested, “because the UNHCR is closed and Hong Kong Government does not understand or accept us. Our community is persecuted to death and Immigration tells us to move to live in other cities in Pakistan. How is that possible? Our passports and ID cards state we are “Ahmadi” and there is no safety anywhere after you name is on the kill list. Those who murder us are celebrated … even by the police!”
An agitated elderly member interrupted, “Immigration rejected my claim! They said that false police charges are a personal problem and I should have complained to other department, as written on some website. What good is that? My neighbours attacked us to steal our family business because I am Ahmadi. No other reason! The police took no action to stop them and then made false charges to arrest me. Since the (anti-Ahmadiyya) Ordinance thousands have been murdered. I had to escape to save my life. That is the truth!”
After sharing a prayerful moment, the community leaders asked about Vision First’s activism and empowerment they had heard about from a handful of active members. The president encouraged the development, “The Ahmadis are known for being peaceful. We don’t believe in strikes. Instead we pray that Allah will change our enemies’ hearts. But today we understand we need organization because Immigration does not understand our problems. We wish to provide our documents and evidence to explain the religious persecution we suffer in Pakistan. We live in exile here.”
The president recently learned a lesson about dealing with Immigration. He reported, “We applied for a visa for an Imam as the community needs religious teaching. But Immigration refused three times. After we contacted a lawyer and he threatened to go to court, Immigration wrote back that it was not necessary and the application would be accepted in seven days. Three days later the visa was issued! So we understand that without pressure it is hard to win in Hong Kong.”